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Princeton settles out of court with former grad student held in Iran

Asian man stands behind Asian woman and toddler seated. There is an empty glass in the frame and the toddler is in a high chair eating dinner.
Xiyue Wang GS with his wife Hua Qu GS ‘21 and their son.
Courtesy of Hua Qu for the Office of Communications

According to court documents, graduate student Xiyue Wang and his wife, Hua Qu GS ’21 settled their lawsuit against Princeton University on Aug. 1. The lawsuit was filed in the aftermath of Wang’s imprisonment in Iran while a graduate student at the University.

The lawsuit claimed “severe personal injuries and other irreparable harm” suffered due to the University’s “reckless, willful, wanton, and grossly negligent acts.” The settlement came ahead of a scheduled hearing on Aug. 15. Possibly in anticipation of the settlement, the suit had been dismissed with prejudice on July 31, meaning the case cannot be retried. 


Wang was detained from August 2016 to December 2019 in Iran, where he was charged with espionage by local authorities before being freed in a prisoner swap between the United States and Iran in December 2019. At the time of his arrest, Wang was a doctoral candidate in Eurasian history completing research in Iran. 

Wang’s settlement comes as another graduate student, Elizabeth Tsurkov GS, is currently being held after having been kidnapped in Iraq. Her sister has alleged she was there on University-approved research and urged the University to confirm that in a statement. The University has reaffirmed it does not approve travel to Iraq.

The lawsuit, initially filed in the New Jersey Superior Court in November 2021, cited several instances when University officials encouraged Wang’s travel. Specifically, it cited Kevan Harris, a postdoctoral research fellow who also served as the acting Associate Director of the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at Princeton, as having "encouraged" Wang to travel to Iran. The lawsuit contains a 2016 email, in which Harris tells Wang, “It’s a good time to go [to Iran] — looks like they are in a good mood over there. Take advantage of it!” At that time, however, Harris was no longer employed by the University. He currently works as an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, a role he took on immediately after his postdoctoral work was completed. 

The lawsuit also cites then Director of the Princeton Iran Center John Haldon as describing the trip as a “pioneering visit for Princeton.”

The lawsuit goes on to argue that, “Faculty advisers wield nearly absolute control over their advisees’ decision-making, which in turn makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for student-advisees to defy or even second-guess their faculty advisers’ advice and guidance.” Professor Stephen Kotkin served as Wang's faculty adviser at the time.

The complaint further alleged that the University advised Wang “not to seek sanctuary at the Swiss Embassy, the only entity in Iran that could have possibly kept Mr. Wang safe.” 


Rather than publicly advocating for Wang’s release Wang and Qu alleged that “[a]ll, and any, publicity regarding Mr. Wang’s arrest and detention was viewed as a negative for Princeton and the Princeton Iran Center.”

In a comment to The Daily Princetonian regarding the settlement, Wang wrote, “Everything related to the case is available in the public domain.” However, the settlement details are not publicly available, as the case was settled out of court with a mediator, in this case John E. Keefe, Sr. Out of court settlements are not part of the public record.

According to a March 22, 2023 letter to the presiding judge, the discovery process had been repeatedly stayed beginning July 7, 2022 “pending the outcome of mediation before the Hon. John E. Keefe, Sr. (Ret.),” which occurred on September 15, 2022. The parties “continued to engage in settlement discussions with the assistance of Judge Keefe,” which eventually led to the settlement in August. 

The discovery process refers to the pretrial process where parties exchange information in  preparation for trial. 

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In a comment to the ‘Prince’ regarding the settlement, University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss stated, “the University provided extraordinary support to Mr. Wang and his family during and following his unjust imprisonment in Iran. In keeping with that support, we have chosen to help them move on with their lives by avoiding protracted litigation.” 

At the time the lawsuit was filed, Hotchkiss had told the 'Prince' that “We are surprised and disappointed by this complaint and believe it is without merit.” 

Wang currently serves as a Jean Kirkpatrick Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Olivia Sanchez is a staff News writer for the ‘Prince.’

Bridget O’Neill is an assistant News editor for the ‘Prince.’

Please send any corrections to corrections[at]

Correction: this piece has been updated to accurately clarify that Kevan Harris had taken on a role at UCLA at the time of the 2016 email and that he did not serve as Wang's faculty adviser. The 'Prince' regrets these errors.